The other day, I was taking a 554 back to the Eastside when I discovered that I was onboard one of those pesky early afternoon trips with a mid-line operator relief at Mercer Island. Judging from my past experiences with that trip, I wasn’t too bothered– for the most part, East Base operators are pretty good at switching in and out while the bus is still service. This time around, however, the relief operator was nowhere in sight, ruffling more than a few passengers’ feathers.
While the relief operator did end up arriving about 5 minutes later, my experience exposed a rather significant disadvantage with having drivers relieve each other mid-line. Though I don’t think instances of missing operators are too common, mid-line reliefs can be wildly unpredictable. Sometimes, drivers will exchange keys and go. Other times, they might strike up some chit-chat first. And there are those occasional instances when a relief operator is nowhere to be found, keeping the driver on the clock and passengers on the bus longer than expected.
When operator work is scheduled and runcutted, relief points are worked in for maximum efficiency from a labor standpoint. That, of course, can sometimes conflict with the system efficiency of in-service routes. A poorly scheduled PM peak road relief on 3rd & Pike, for example, could easily logjam the Third Ave corridor, impacting buses going to and from places all over the region. Of course, the best places and times to sneak in operator reliefs are those with little or no impact on revenue service, i.e., route terminals or during pulses at major transit centers.
Although I certainly don’t dispute that maximizing labor and wage efficiencies are vital scheduling considerations, I think keeping our transit vehicles operating free and undistracted should be priority number one, even if it means eliminating mid-line operator reliefs entirely.